School & college studies

Most people know what doctors, nurses, dentists and vets do. But many people are not sure what a research chemist does, or what a pharmacologist is.

If you enjoy learning about science a career in the pharmaceutical industry may be for you. There are also lots of jobs for non-scientists, so even if you don’t want to study science, there’s likely to be a job in the industry for you. 

Explore the range of jobs available under Working in the industry.

At school you have many choices to make about which subjects to study. Normally people choose the subjects that they like and are good at. Although this is a good way to help you pick, it’s important to think carefully about your choices and what effect these may have on what you can do in the future.  

The more you know about your options, the better your decisions are likely to be. To help you we’ve identified a few important things to consider when you’re selecting subjects to study at school and college:  

My choices at 14

Even if science isn’t your favourite subject or you find science hard, try not to be afraid of a challenge. Studying and doing well in science will keep many options open to you in the future.

The subjects you choose to study for GCSE, or Standard Grade, will determine which A levels or Highers you can take, and this then affects which university courses and jobs you can apply for. As it is hard to ‘pick up’ a subject in the future that you’ve dropped, making the right choices at this age is very important. 

Choices in England and Wales

In England and Wales most students are encouraged to study at least two science GCSEs, and from 2016 this will be compulsory. Most schools and colleges will not allow you to study any science subject at A-level (even Sports Studies or Psychology) if you haven't got two GCSEs in Science. Increasingly schools also offer 'triple science', meaning you will sit individual GCSE exams in each of Biology, Chemistry and Physics. This is thought to be the best preparation for A-levels in these science subjects.

Some schools also offer Diplomas or BTEC Applied Science courses. These more skill-based (vocational) courses are designed to help you gain practical skills, and are good preparation for the Applied Science A-level and Apprenticeships in science and engineering. 

However it is important to check that the qualification you get from this course will be enough to allow you to go on to study what you want post-16. If you think you might want to go on to university, it's important to check the university entrance requirements, as not all universities accept these qualifications.

Take a look at the Ways in – England and Wales chart to see all the different routes into a career in the pharmaceutical industry.

Choices in Scotland

In Scotland the choice is just between Biology, Chemistry and Physics Standard Grade. If you think you might want to study science beyond age 16, you should try to continue to study all three science subjects. This chart shows the different ways into the pharmaceutical industry in Scotland. 

Getting the grade 

Most schools require you to have at least a C grade (and often higher) at GCSE to be allowed to study a science A level. Getting a good grade in science will also help when applying for an Apprenticeship. 

If you need help studying science, have a look at the resources available on our Resources for Schools website

My choices at 16

At 16 you are faced with some big decisions that can make a real difference to the university and career options open to you in the future.

Do I stay at school and study for A levels or Highers? What subjects should I choose? Should I go straight to work, or train on-the-job with an apprenticeship?

Make sure you take the time to find out all the information you need to make these important decisions.


Apprenticeships are a great way to continue your education and enter into the world of work if further study at school or university isn’t for you.

More information can be found at the Apprenticeships page of this site.

Subject choices

If you want to do an apprenticeship post-18 or go to university then it’s important you make the right subject choices. Most science degrees will require you to have at least two science A levels or Highers. Surprisingly chemistry is often needed for entry on to biological science courses, and studying maths beyond GCSE is often counted as a science subject and looked upon favourably when applying for a science-related degree. 

Before deciding what subjects to take, have a look at the different university courses available and the entry requirements on the UCAS website.

Vocational qualifications  

If you aren’t ready to go into an apprenticeship but don’t want to study for A levels or Highers you may have the option to study for a vocational qualification. These courses are often offered by special colleges, and focus much more on the skills needed to carry out a particular job. 

Vocational qualifications relevant to the pharmaceutical industry include those in science, health, engineering and manufacturing, IT, accounting and business. For more information about vocational qualifications see the Career Pilot website. 

My choices at 18

Choosing whether to go to university and what to study are hard decisions to make. But perhaps full-time university study isn't for you.

If full-time university study isn’t for you, you may consider getting straight into the industry through an apprenticeship. Some companies take on school leavers with A-levels who start out as technicians on their manufacturing sites or research labs and study part-time to gain further qualifications. 

Take a look at our Apprenticeships page to find out more.

Although entering straight into the workplace at 16 or 18 through apprenticeships or on-the-job training may be appealing and is a good route for many, completing a degree does have its benefits. Government data shows that graduates earn more than non-graduates and have a lower unemployment rate.

Source: Graduate Labour Market Statistics, Department for Business Innovation & Skills, 2017

Considering university

Although studying chemistry, biology, pharmacology or engineering may seem like obvious choices if you want to work in the pharmaceutical industry, there’s such a diverse range of jobs in the industry that there are many different degrees you could consider. You may never have heard of some of the degree options relevant to the industry, such as biochemistry, cell biology  or immunology. It’s worth taking time to explore all your options and to​​​ consider the possible job opportunities after a degree. 

To find out more about the jobs in the industry explore Working in the Industry.

Browsing the Case Studies section will also give you an insight into working in the industry. Make sure you look at what they studied and what it has led to.

More information on the range of degree options and entry requirements can be found on the UCAS website

When choosing a degree course you should also think about the option for a training year or work experience as part of the course. Gaining hands-on lab experience can be invaluable, especially if you’re considering a career in research and development. 

See the Work Experience page for more information.

Work experience

If you’re unsure if a career in the pharmaceutical industry is for you, work experience is an ideal way to find out.

Work experience gives you the chance to see what it’s like to work in the industry, and to find out whether it’s somewhere you’d like to work. It also gives you a chance to talk to people already in the industry, to find out how they got to where they are, and you may even make some useful contacts for the future. Having work experience on your CV shows employers you have a genuine interest in working in the industry and that you know what you’re applying for. 

Use the Pharmaceutical Recruiters​ page to search for companies that offer work experience opportunities. 


Although work experience is very important, it’s often very hard to find relevant placement, especially if you’re under 16. The opportunity to carry out a work experience placement is, however, valuable even if it is unrelated to a future career. For example, some pharmaceutical companies offer work experience in office jobs to local students.


Some pharmaceutical companies may offer one week or two week work experience placements during school holidays for 16-18 year olds. Work experience placements are rarely advertised so you will probably have to contact companies directly. 

Searching the Pharmaceutical Recruiters​ section of this site will help you to find companies in your local area who you can approach.

If you’re interested in research and development, CREST awards and Nuffield Bursary research placements are great ways of gaining relevant work experience. Under both schemes you complete a project in industry or at a university normally in the summer between years 12 and 13. By having a project to focus on, you get a better insight into what it’s actually like to work in the job. 

More information on these can be found on the following links: 

Thinking ahead to university

Some university courses offer a ‘year in industry’ (sometimes called a sandwich or industrial placement year) as part of their course. These are invaluable and should be a serious consideration when choosing which university course to take. 

A year in industry is often paid, and assessment of the work carried out during the year may contribute to your Bachelors degree or even form part of a Masters degree. 

Search the Pharmaceutical Recruiters section of this site to find out which employers offer a year in industry or summer placements.

Have a look at our case studies of students on internships or industrial placements for an insight into the life of a student in industry:

Many more examples of what it's like to work in the pharmaceutical industry can be found on our Case studies page. 

If you are unable to undertake a placement year during your university course, taking advantage of the long summer holidays to get relevant work experience is a great idea. 

See how William used his summer to gain relevant work experience:

Paid work 

An evening or weekend job also counts as work experience and can sometimes also give an insight into careers in science. A job in a pharmacy, for example, would be relevant to anyone interested in a medically related career. However having any work experience shows an employer that you know what it’s like to be employed and gives you something outside of school to talk about on your CV and at interview.